Two women are choosing to put food scraps into the compost bin instead of the trash to reduce food waste, which helps out environment significantly
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Stop tossing food

Reducing Food Waste: Small Steps for Big Savings and a Healthier Planet

Tess Santorelli
October 5, 2023

It’s no secret that food waste is a major environmental problem. Almost one-third of all food produced in the world goes unused. The waste not only impacts our wallets, but also contributes to energy consumption and environmental concerns. With so much waste piling up in landfills, the rotting food develops into methane gas, which is one of the most common greenhouse gasses. This gas is directly contributing to climate change, which is harming us all.

While we often rightly think of corporations and politics that have caused accelerating climate change, food waste is still a significant factor that we can do something about. It's an issue that is intertwined with our daily lives in more ways than we might realize. While trying to make changes yourself can feel overwhelming, reducing food waste doesn't have to mean transforming your current lifestyle. Instead, small, meaningful steps can make a significant difference. Here's how.

The Bigger Picture

Before diving into personal habits, let’s look into the contributing factors that we often don’t realize are impacting how and when we discard food. For those of us in the United States (U.S)., there are varying factors that can cause us to get rid of food unnecessarily.

Across the U.S., states have varying food waste programs, often built around community composting and improved waste management systems. While some states are taking steps to reduce food waste, others may make it harder due to certain policies, regulations, and other factors. The U.S. actually has a national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. In the meantime, it’s important to do what we can to reduce our own waste until policies can catch up.

Another contributing factor that many don’t realize has a large impact is the confusion around “sell by” and “use by” dates. The ambiguity of these dates can confuse consumers, often leading us to prematurely dispose of perfectly safe and edible items.

Here’s a brief breakdown you can check next time you’re not sure if something in your fridge is actually expired:

  • "Sell By": This is an advisory for stores on inventory management, not a safety date. The food item can still be consumed after this date.
  • "Best If Used By/Before": This refers to when the food will be at its best flavor or quality. It doesn't necessarily mean the product will be unsafe after this date.
  • "Use By": This is the last date recommended for the consumption of the product to ensure its peak quality. However, many products can still be consumed shortly after this date.

Practical Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste

Reducing food waste goes beyond just being mindful at the grocery store. It's a daily commitment that involves smart planning, understanding food storage, and getting a bit creative in the kitchen. It might seem daunting at first, but you don’t have to transform your lifestyle. Start small by introducing incremental changes into your shopping habits. And remember, you’re doing this for a good reason. Not only can reducing food waste save you money, but it can also help conserve energy and contribute to a healthier planet.

Let's dive into some practical steps you can take today to make a tangible difference in your household food waste.

  • Meal Planning: Before grocery shopping, plan your meals. By doing so, you're less likely to buy ingredients that you won't use before they expire.
  • Embrace Leftovers: Think of leftovers as ready-to-eat meals rather than excess food to discard. You can even make it fun by having a “leftovers night,” and make a point to finish any leftovers in the fridge.
  • Shop Smart and Store Smart: Know when to buy your fruits and vegetables and how to store them. Did you know that certain fruits stored together can cause them to ripen faster? Bananas often have that effect - if you need to ripen avocados, put them in a bag with a banana.
  • Organize Your Fridge: When putting groceries away, shift older products to the front and newer items to the back. This ensures that you use up items before they expire.
  • Bulk Buying with Caution: While buying in bulk can save money, ensure it makes sense for perishables. If you can't consume it in time, you're not really saving.
  • Compost: Turn inedible scraps into compost. Not only does this reduce waste, but it also enriches your garden soil. If you don’t know where to start, check if you have a local compost program. (More on our favorite composters here!)
A father and daughter compost together
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The Energy Connection

Reducing food waste has a ripple effect on energy consumption — even on an individual basis.  For example, keeping your refrigerator full is more energy-efficient, but that doesn’t mean it’s better to buy more food to keep it full. You can try different tricks to save energy, like adding containers of water and ice to fill up your fridge, which can optimize its efficiency without leading to excess food waste.

Food waste isn't just about the lost potential of the food itself; it's also about the vast amounts of energy expended throughout the entire process, from farm to fork. By understanding the energy costs involved, we can appreciate the broader benefits of reducing food waste both for our wallets and the planet.

By wasting less food, we ensure that the energy spent on producing it isn't in vain.

Production Energy

Two farmers inspect crops
Adobe Stock

Growing our food requires significant energy. This includes:

  • Irrigation: Large amounts of water are needed to irrigate crops, and pumping this water consumes energy. It’s estimated that 70 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses.
  • Fertilizers and Pesticides: The production and application of fertilizers and pesticides use up energy and release greenhouse gas emissions. Excessive fertilizer use on corn farms can run off into rivers and oceans, creating “dead zones” — like one in the Gulf of Mexico — that are harmful to marine life.
  • Machinery: Tractors, plows, and harvesters all run on fuel, one of the many farming factors contributing to air pollution. Its impact isn’t invisible: air pollution from growing corn has been linked to 4,300 premature deaths.

Transportation and Storage

Once the food is harvested, it's transported to various locations, sometimes across vast distances:

  • Cold Storage: Refrigerated trucks and storage facilities consume electricity to keep perishable items fresh. In fact, cold storage contributes around 1 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.
  • Fuel Costs: Transporting food from the farm to processing facilities and then to retailers involves burning a striking amount of fossil fuels. The entire food production process from farm to table makes up one third of all human-caused emissions.

Processing and Packaging

Many foods undergo processing, which often involves:

  • Heating or Cooling: Energy is required to cook, freeze, or otherwise process many food items.
  • Packaging: Creating packaging materials, especially plastics, consumes energy and resources. Packaging accounts for an average of 5 percent of the energy used in the life cycle of a food product.

At Home

Energy consumption doesn't stop when it reaches store shelves:

  • Refrigeration: As we mentioned, a full refrigerator is more energy-efficient. However, overstocking can lead to forgotten items and waste.
  • Cooking: Every time we cook, we're using energy, be it from gas or electricity. By planning meals efficiently and using leftovers creatively, we can optimize this energy use.

Reducing food waste is an eco-friendly choice that stretches beyond just saving edible items. It's a comprehensive approach to conserving energy, minimizing carbon footprints, and promoting a sustainable lifestyle. By understanding the energy connection, we're better equipped to make informed decisions that benefit both our planet and our energy bills.

Why Not Try?

When we discuss food waste, we're touching on a global issue with significant environmental, economic, and societal impacts. Food waste contributes to about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. When food is discarded, not only are we losing the actual food, but also the energy, water, and resources that went into producing, packaging, and transporting it.

You don’t have to start with big lifestyle changes. Wasting less food is an achievable goal for everyone. By adopting even a few of these simple habits, you can start contributing to a sustainable future, while reducing your energy bills and saving valuable resources. We believe that when we are empowered with actionable insights to make greener choices, we can all start making improvements for ourselves and for the environment. Every effort counts in our journey toward a lower-waste lifestyle, saving money, energy, and our planet.

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